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People usually volunteer to donate stem cells for an allogeneic transplant either because they have a loved one or friend who needs a match or because they want to help people. Some people give their stem cells so they can get them back later if they need an autologous transplant.
Medical guidelines are in place to protect the health of potential donors, as well as the health of bone marrow and stem cell transplant patients. Many factors can affect if a person is eligible to register as a donor.
People, including cancer survivors, who want to donate stem cells or join a volunteer registry can check the eligibility list available through the registry. They can also speak with a health care provider or contact the National Marrow Donor Program to find the nearest donor center. Potential donors are asked questions to make sure they are healthy enough to donate and don’t pose a risk of infection to the recipient. For more information about donor eligibility guidelines, contact Be the Match or the donor center in your area.
Be the Match (formerly the National Marrow Donor Program)
Toll-free number: 1-800-MARROW-2 (1-800-627-7692)
A simple blood test is done to learn the potential donor’s HLA type. There may be a one-time, tax-deductible fee of about $75 to $100 for this test. People who join a volunteer donor registry will most likely have their tissue type kept on file until they reach age 60.
Pregnant women who want to donate their baby’s cord blood should make arrangements for it early in the pregnancy, at least before the third trimester. Donation is safe, free, and does not affect the birth process.
If a possible stem cell donor is found to be a good match for a recipient, steps are taken to teach the donor about the transplant process and make sure they are making an informed decision. If a person decides to donate, a consent form must be signed after the risks of donating are fully discussed. The donor is not pressured to take part. It’s always a choice.
If a person decides to donate, a medical exam and blood tests will be done to make sure they are in good health.
Stem cells may be collected from these 3 different sources:
Each method of collection is explained here.
This process is often called bone marrow harvest. It’s done in an operating room, while the donor is under general anesthesia (given medicine to put them into a deep sleep so they don’t feel pain). The marrow cells are taken from the back of the pelvic (hip) bone. The donor lies face down, and a large needle is put through the skin and into the back of the hip bone. It’s pushed through the bone to the center and the thick, liquid marrow is pulled out through the needle. This is repeated several times until enough marrow has been taken out (harvested). The amount taken depends on the donor’s weight. Often, about 10% of the donor’s marrow, or about 2 pints, are collected. This takes about 1 to 2 hours. The body will replace these cells within 4 to 6 weeks. If blood was taken from the donor before the marrow donation, it’s often given back to the donor at this time.
After the bone marrow is harvested, the donor is taken to the recovery room while the anesthesia wears off. The donor may then be taken to a hospital room and watched until fully alert and able to eat and drink. In most cases, the donor is able to leave the hospital within a few hours or by the next morning.
The donor may have soreness, bruising, and aching at the back of the hips and lower back for a few days. Over-the-counter pain medications or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are helpful. Some people may feel tired or weak, and have trouble walking for a few days. The donor might be told to take iron supplements until the number of red blood cells returns to normal. Most donors get back to their usual activities in 2 to 3 days. But it could take 2 or 3 weeks before they feel completely back to normal.
There aren’t many risks for donors and serious complications are rare. But bone marrow donation is a surgical procedure. Rare complications could include anesthesia reactions, infection, nerve or muscle damage, transfusion reactions (if a blood transfusion of someone else’s blood is needed – this doesn’t happen if you get your own blood), or injury at the needle insertion sites. Problems such as sore throat or nausea may be caused by anesthesia.
Allogeneic stem cell donors do not have to pay for the harvesting because the recipient’s insurance company usually covers the cost. Even so, be sure to ask about insurance coverage before you decide to have the bone marrow harvest done.
Once the cells are collected, they are filtered through fine mesh screens. This prevents bone or fat particles from being given to the recipient. For an allogeneic or syngeneic transplant, the cells may be given to the recipient through a vein soon after they are harvested. Sometimes they’re frozen, for example, if the donor lives far away from the recipient.
For several days before starting the donation process, the donor is given a daily injection (shot) of a drug that causes the bone marrow to make and release a lot of stem cells into the blood. Filgrastim can cause some side effects, the most common being bone pain and headaches. These may be helped by over-the-counter pain medications or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Nausea, sleeping problems, low-grade (mild) fevers, and tiredness are other possible effects. These go away once the injections are finished and collection is completed.
After the shots, blood is removed through a catheter (a thin, flexible plastic tube) that’s put in a large vein in the arm. It’s then cycled through a machine that separates the stem cells from the other blood cells. The stem cells are kept while the rest of the blood is returned to the donor, often through the same catheter. (In some cases, a catheter may be put in each arm – one takes out blood and the other puts it back.) This process is called apheresis. It takes about 2 to 4 hours and is done as an outpatient procedure. Often the process needs to be repeated daily for a few days, until enough stem cells have been collected.
Possible side effects of the catheter can include trouble placing the catheter in the vein, blockage of the catheter, or infection of the catheter or at the area where it enters the vein. Blood clots are another possible side effect. During the apheresis procedure, donors may have problems caused by low calcium levels from the anti-coagulant drug used to keep the blood from clotting in the machine. These can include feeling lightheaded or tingly, and having chills or muscle cramps. These go away after donation is complete, but may be treated by giving the donor calcium supplements.
The process of donating cells for yourself (autologous stem cell donation) is pretty much the same as when someone donates them for someone else (allogeneic donation). It’s just that in autologous stem cell donation the donor is also the recipient, giving stem cells for their own use later on. For some people, there are a few differences. For instance, sometimes chemotherapy (chemo) is given before the growth factor drug is used to tell the body to make stem cells. Also, sometimes it can be hard to get enough stem cells from a person with cancer. Even after several days of apheresis, there may not be enough for the transplant. This is more likely to be a problem if the patient has had certain kinds of chemo in the past, or if they have an illness that affects their bone marrow.
Cord blood is the blood that’s left in the placenta and umbilical cord after a baby is born. Collecting it does not pose any health risk to the infant or the mother. Cord blood transplants use blood that would otherwise be thrown away. After the umbilical cord is clamped and cut, the placenta and umbilical cord are cleaned. The cord blood is put into a sterile container, mixed with a preservative, and frozen until needed.
Some parents choose to donate their infant’s cord blood to a public blood bank, so that it may be used by anyone who needs it. Many hospitals collect cord blood for donation, which makes it easier for parents to donate. Parents can donate their newborn’s cord blood to volunteer or public cord blood banks at no cost. For more about donating your newborn’s cord blood, call 1-800-MARROW2 (1-800-627-7692) or visit Be the Match.
Other parents store their newborn’s cord blood in private cord blood banks just in case the child or a close relative needs it someday. If you want to donate or bank (save) your child’s cord blood, you’ll need to arrange it before the baby is born. Some banks require you to set it up before the 28th week of pregnancy, although others accept later setups. Among other things, you’ll be asked to answer health questions and sign a consent form.
Parents may want to bank their child’s cord blood if the family has a history of diseases that may benefit from stem cell transplant. There are several private companies offer this service. But here are some things to think about:
More information on private family cord blood banking can be found at the Parent’s Guide to Cord Blood Foundation. You can visit their website at www.parentsguidecordblood.org.
The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy. 2019. Accessed at https://www.cancer.net/navigating-cancer-care/diagnosing-cancer/tests-and-procedures/bone-marrow-aspiration-and-biopsy on March 17, 2020.
American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). What is a stem cell transplant (bone marrow transplant)? 2018. Accessed at https://www.cancer.net/navigating-cancer-care/how-cancer-treated/bone-marrowstem-cell-transplantation/what-bone-marrow-transplant-stem-cell-transplant on March 17, 2020.
Im A, Pavletic SZ. Hematopoietic stem cell transplantation. In Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Kastan MB, Doroshow JH, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier;2020:461-469.
National Institutes of Health (NIH). Stem cell basics. 2016. Access at https://stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics.htm on March 17, 2020.
Last Revised: August 4, 2020
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